Ever wonder what’s in your glass of wine? You might be surprised. Because alcohol doesn’t list ingredients or nutrition, it’s easy to see why so many of us are misinformed when it comes to our wine selections. Especially when there’s a sale going on at Trader Joe’s.
Wine is essentially fermented grape juice, but lots of companies are sneaking extra ingredients into their batches. Some of the extra ingredients include oak chips, egg whites, sulfur dioxide, and various chemical additives. (That’s right…lots of wines aren’t even vegan!) And for those of us who put a lot of thought into our grocery lists, we may want to consider giving the same level of attention to what we’re sipping on.
“Natural wine” is more than just some eye-catching jargon used to lure in consumers. It’s as real as the day is long, and several artisanal winemakers are striving to add it to their labels. To make natural wine, one must use as little intervention as possible. This means no fancy mechanizations, no chemical fertilizers, and no pesticides.
This also means no add-ins. In wine-making, additives are typically used in order to create desired flavors. You know how you might swirl a glass and try to identify the “notes of stone fruit”? Often times, those are supplied by specific yeasts that help generate flavors. Sulfur dioxide is also added in order to prevent bacterial growth and oxidation.
In a recent story with NPR, wine guru Stephen Meuse elaborates on the difference between modern wine and natural wine. Meuse works as the senior wine buyer at a specialty food shop, and wrote about wine for 15 years in the Boston Globe.
“On one end, you have people trying to edge themselves toward fewer additives, no additives, organic fruit — but then [they] will rely on a little sulfur or added yeast to correct problems,” Meuse says. “And then, way out on the extreme end, are people who farm organically and then insist on letting the wine completely take its own direction. They’re OK with organic matter in the bottle. And their wines take on different flavors. … tangy, cloudy, yeasty.” In the most extreme examples, Meuse adds, “you get wines that can remind you more of cider than wine.”
Wine distributor and importer Amy Atwood also has some thoughts on the matter. While it might be hard to define natural wine, there are some absolutes. She tells LA Weekly:
Neutral oak barrels should be used for aging (they won’t import that toasty, buttery oak flavor), and no filtering or fining (adding egg whites to remove sediments) should be in the natural winemaker’s playbook. Sulfites should only be added minimally at bottling for stability purposes.
It should be noted that natural and organic wines are not two of a kind. Organic wine is made without any chemicals in the growing process. But after the grapes have been harvested and the wine goes in for vinification, wine makers can do whatever they want. That’s why organic wines can contain things like milk, sugar, and even fish bladders. Not exactly what we had in mind.
Unfortunately, wine isn’t labeled like organic food, so it’s impossible to know exactly what you’re drinking. Natural wine shop owner Phillippe Essome tells NPR that people are starting to fight back on the lack of labeling. Until then, Essome calls the natural wine business “something of a Wild West.”
Right now, natural wine consists of only 1 percent of the wine produced in the world. Biodynamic vineyard management is even stricter. The process includes lots of homeopathic practices, including crop covers between vineyard rows, supplementing the soil with herbal teas, and using owl houses to protect the grapes from rodents. In both cases, the wines are harvested by hand.
But what it taste like? According to NPR, natural wine can at first be a little “off-putting and nose-wrinkling.” The whites and roses are a little darker than non-natural wines, and there might be some clouds or yeast-clumps floating in the bottles. For most, the flavor is hit or miss. Some describe natural wine as “funky,” but others say that’s what makes it complex.
Of course, we can’t be the ones to make the call. If you’re interested in tasting a natural wine, there are lots of shops and tasting rooms embracing the trend. New Yorkers can start their search here, and Domaine LA and Silverlake Wine are great places for Angelenos. If you’re outside those two cites, there are lots of online options.
Like anything you put into your body, it never hurts to ask questions. Knowing what you’re drinking will make that evening glass of pinot noir all the more enjoyable.
Amanda Kohr is a 25-year-old writer and photographer with a penchant for yoga, food, and travel. She prefers to bathe in the moonlight rather than the sun, and enjoys living in a state of the three C’s: cozy, creative, and curious. When she’s not writing, you can find her driving her VW Bug, looking for the next roadside attraction or family diner. She also roams the internet at amandakohr.com and through Instagram.